Civic leaders in the Philippines have a lodged a petition to block Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the presumptive winner of the country's May 9 presidential election, from taking office, alleging that he lied when he said he had not been convicted of any crime.
"Elections are more than just a numbers game such that an election victory cannot bypass election eligibility requirements," the petition filed on Tuesday reads.
The case has drawn a flurry of local media attention, even after the election, because the stakes are high. The Supreme Court is the last opportunity for the group of civic leaders, made up of survivors of Marcos's late father's brutal decades-long dictatorship and backed by human rights lawyers, to prove Marcos Jr., also known by his childhood name Bongbong or BBM, is not eligible to run for president. In their petition, the authors assert that Bongbong was convicted of tax evasion in 1995, which should have barred him from ever seeking public office.
The Philippines Commission on Election, or COMELEC, has twice dismissed this same petition, the final time just days after the election was held, as well as six other similar complaints to disqualify Bongbong from running for president — actions that have drawn public criticism that the body had given preferential treatment to Marcos.
But attorney and Marcos spokesperson Victor D. Rodriguez, spokesperson for President-elect Marcos, pushed back on such criticism and the latest petition to the high court. "These cases have already been dismissed unanimously by COMELEC on the division level as well as by COMELEC en banc," Rodriguez said in an emailed response to NPR. "They are without any merit, and we appeal to those pursuing them to end this divisiveness."
Local media reported that the Supreme Court has given 15 days for Marcos, Congress and the election commission to respond.
The ongoing cases against Marcos illustrate the polarizing effect his family and their legacy still has in the Philippines. Experts say that no matter how the Supreme Court decides to rule, it will have a profound impact on not just Marcos himself, but also the next presidential administration.
Here is a breakdown of the legal questions and what could happen, depending on how the Philippine Supreme Court decides to handle the case:
What legal questions is the court being asked to resolve?
Essentially, the court is being asked by the petitioners to cancel Marcos' certificate of candidacy on the basis that he lied when he said he had not committed any crimes, election lawyer Emilio Marañon III tells NPR.
Since Marcos was convicted of tax evasion in the mid-1990s, "it is being claimed by the petitioners, that he is actually disqualified under the law," Marañon says.
Meanwhile, the petition also asks the court to issue a restraining order on Congress from counting votes until a decision on the matter is made.
What happens if the court rejects the petition?
Marcos will likely be declared the next president of the Philippines once Congress finalizes canvassing the votes.
He is millions of votes ahead of his closest rival, current-Vice President Leni Robredo, according to the current unofficial and partially official vote tally. And while his presumptive win is not shocking — BBM had a substantial lead in the polls leading up to election day — his campaign was marred by accusations of vote buying and a disinformation campaign to write his family's infamous legacy.
What happens if the court rules to uphold the petition?
Law experts say that according to Philippine law, the moment a certificate of candidacy is canceled, it is as if the person never ran.
"So this would mean that all the votes cast in [Marcos'] favor, would be considered a stray and ...therefore will be disregarded," Marañon says. "And the legal effect of this is that the person who [got] the second-highest vote will be the one who will be proclaimed as president."
That person would be VP Leni Robredo.
What is the makeup of the Philippine Supreme Court and does it matter?
Just like in the United States, the president of the Philippines gets to appoint justices to the Supreme Court. However, unlike in the U.S., where Congress holds hearings to vote on appointees, final approval of justices in the Philippines is a sole executive decision of the president's. Of the 14 justices that sit on the court, 12 are appointees of President Rodrigo Duterte.
Attorney Eugenio H. Villareal, a professor at Ateneo de Manila Law School, says a president is expected to appoint a justice on their knowledge of the law and their merits. If a judge is associated with a political party, "they should be separated, or they should not show any partisan political affiliation," he says.
However, Villareal notes, political influence is "a great possibility."
This has led to people speculating that Duterte's daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio, the presumptive next vice president, could end up president, Marañon says.
How long does the court have to make a decision?
This is up to the Supreme Court, Villareal says. The court could sit on the petition for as long as it wants and do nothing — or they could make a decision to review or not review it tomorrow.
Though "time is of the essence because the canvass [of the votes] will have to happen soon," he says. Other experts NPR spoke also believe that because the case is of utmost public interest, the high court may likely make a decision on it very soon.
Still, even if the petition is taking up quickly, a decision wouldn't likely be due out until the end of third quarter, Villareal says.
Has the court ever had to rule on an issue like this?
Yes, but at the local level.
In a 2013 case, a man named Rommel Arnado had his candidacy for local office canceled after a court found he was not solely a Philippine citizen — a requirement to run for office.
Arnado was born in the Philippines, but became a naturalized U.S. citizen. He had later repatriated to the Philippines and reclaimed his Filipino citizenship. Filipinos can be dual U.S.-Philippines passport holders unless a person decides to run for office in the Philippines, then they must denounce their non-Filipino citizenship.
Arnado was found by a court of not having done that and ultimately had his candidacy canceled, even after the election took place and the race awarded to the second-runner up.
"So there's there's precedent, so to speak," Villareal says.
What are the overall implications of such a case for the trust in the election process in the Philippines?
In the Philippines, "the judiciary has a big role to play in elections" and people are pretty used to the courts stepping in to resolve election-related issues, Villareal says.
"And so in under our Constitution, the Supreme Court is the so called 'bulwark of democracy'... all the final resolution of all cases should be with the Supreme Court," he says. "If they say it's no, then it's no. If they say it's yes, it's yes."
Still, if the court rules against Marcos and cancels his candidacy, millions of voters will likely feel like they've had the rug pulled from under them," Marañon explains. "Under that scenario, people will distrust the Supreme Court... we cannot remove the suspicion."